By George Cho, ND
I remember a very distressing experience at a large family dinner that took place when I was in my early teens. By this time in our lives, family functions were a source of anxiety because our relatives would give us, particularly mother, quite a hard time about our diet. Mom, my siblings and I had gone plant-based and to them, this was very extreme. Well, on this particular gathering, one of my aunts put dumplings on our plate saying that it was “okay to eat.” However, it only took a few bites for us to realize that we had been tricked. High pressure experiences like this were common growing up and made Christmas and festive gatherings more dreadful than they ought to have been for young adolescents like us.
If you are a vegan, it is possible that you have had similar negative experiences. Social pressures and stigma can be part of the vegan experience. In fact, in 2015, focus groups facilitated by two American researchers discovered that vegans report negative experiences and feeling stigmatized for their food choices (1). It is fascinating to read some of the experiences related by the vegan participants in these focus groups. Some examples are below:
“You don’t even know the amount of times that people have said to me, ‘You’re crazy’”
“Everywhere you go, everyone is trying to prove you wrong.”
“It’s also challenging with people… its really hard with people who are looking down on you [for] doing the ‘wrong thing’ – not doing what is normal.”
“I’ve been bribed by my dad’s friends to eat a steak with them for two hundred dollars. They’re like, ‘Lets do it!’ I’ve been doing this since I was eleven. I’m pretty good [without the steak]. Please don’t [bribe me].”
“I'm the only one that doesn't eat meat in my family. And it's kind of like, they're all eating meat around me, and they're like, ‘Oh, yeah. You want this? You want this?’ It's like, ‘No, I really don't, but thanks.’ So, you always get the pressure from friends, family, whatever. Or they always ask you like, ‘Why do you do this?’ And you always have to say the same exact thing ... it's kind of annoying how they always try to pressure you into it and they never see your point of view.” (From a vegetarian)
“I still get, ‘Hey, you want a steak?’ from my dad all the time.” (From vegetarian)
“Yeah, holidays are the worst.”
“My whole family eats their steak bleeding. We're super Italian. There's cheese in everything ... [But] when you go home, you want to be with your family ... because you see them maybe once a month because you're at school. They make this amazing meal for you ... but it's covered in cheese. It still counts [as non- vegan]”
In their report released December 31, 2018, the two researchers note that a consistent theme brought out by the vegan participants (and some of the vegetarians) in the focus group was the sense of being stigmatized for how they ate. The researchers described this phenomenon as “vegan stigma.” Others have used the term “vegaphobia” (2).
Judgmental and attention-seeking vegans
However, it is also very intriguing to read what the vegetarians and the omnivores in the focus group had to say about vegans they’ve encountered. Some examples of their thoughts are below:
Vegetarian’s views on vegans:
“Someone will say, ‘I can’t eat that – I’m vegan.’ And it’s like, ‘Oh, you’re vegan.’ Like, you have to say it- you can’t just say you can’t eat it.”
“There's usually a pause after somebody says I'm a vegan. [Group laughter] Maybe it's a little angst part of me that's like, ‘What is the reaction they're seeking?’ or something. Like it's kind of a moral war ... I feel like some people that I have encountered, people who are vegan, have kind of, just like, this air about them.”
“I find that some vegans look down on other people … You’re not going to change anyone’s opinion by telling them that they’re wrong. They’re going to be like, ‘Yeah, I’m wrong, but its delicious.’”
“That's definitely stereotypical of vegans ... I don't care [if] ... you choose to do that, I choose to do this. Like, I'm not going to try to preach to you about what I think you should and shouldn't do.”
Omnivores’ views on vegans:
“I'd agree with opinionated too because I know some vegans, and everyone that I know, they really like to talk about how they're vegan, and they like to tell you, ‘Oh it's so good ‘cause of this and that, and this and that.’”
“It sort of goes along with all those militant, self- righteous, overzealous, kind of—go down that continuation—that in order to continue their lifestyle, they kind of have to force people out of the way ... They have to be kind of aggressive to keep it going.”
“Every time I've ever met a vegan, they've like tried to convince me to become a vegan. They talk about how great it is, and if you meet somebody that is a vegan, the first thing they tell you, they're like, ‘Oh yeah, I'm a vegan.’ It's the first thing they say about themselves.”
“They’re really vocal with their veganism and try to kind of like, force it down peoples’ throats sometimes.”
“Everything she wanted to write about was veganism. She would always throw it in your face and ruin your lunchtime because she was a vegan. For that, it really annoyed me the way she would talk about it. For that, I avoid vegans, and when I hear about stuff being vegan, I am not happy about it.”
Interestingly, though all groups used words like “healthy,” “compassionate,” “dedicated,” and “self-controlled,” to describe vegans, the vegetarians and omnivores in these focus groups also described vegans as attention-seeking, over-zealous and felt judged by them.
I think one thing is clear: We vegans can be annoying.
Though we cannot use these focus groups to represent the experiences of all vegans or the attitudes of all vegetarians and omnivores, it probably would not be a stretch to suggest that this does represent the experience of many. As a plant-based individual myself, I can definitely resonate with much of what the researchers describe from the focus groups.
Keep vegans at a distance
What was also apparent from the focus groups was that the stigma attached to vegans lead to distancing behaviors. Fear of the social repercussions of being vegan leads vegetarians to continue eating eggs and milk, and omnivores to continue with their animal foods (1). The researchers also report that sometimes social distancing occurs when people distance themselves from vegans because of the stigma attached to them (1).
So, how should we relate to all this?
Don’t assume motive or read thoughts
It is clear that both vegans and non-vegans feel judged by the other. Just as omnivores and vegetarians feel like vegans judge them, vegans also often feel like omnivores and vegetarians do the same too. It is not one way, it goes both ways. However, it is important to check whether we may be incorrectly judging each others’ motives. Sometimes we assume the motives of others, and we can often be wrong in our assessments of people. An ancient book states: “Judge not, that ye be not judged,” meaning that we should not judge peoples’ motives (3). I think that is excellent advice. Sometimes when we feel judged, the problem is us, not them.
It is also clear that both vegans and non-vegans can feel like the other side is pushy and forceful. It is not one way, it seems to go both ways. However, sometimes it does seem like the word “forced” is over-used in society today. If we are really honest with ourselves, it is often “pressure” that we are feeling, not “force.” We are interpreting being pressured as being forced. There can be a world of difference between those two terms. When it comes to food choices in Canada and the United States, it’s highly likely we may find ourselves in situations where we feel pressured to eat a certain way, but not necessarily forced. We need to be careful when utilizing the term “forced” as it may be an exaggeration. However, in any case, it is clear that people do not like being pressured, especially when it comes to food, and so it’s good to be aware and sensitive towards that, and this goes for both vegans and non-vegans.
Opinionated or strong opinions?
A third thing that is clear is that both sides think the other side is very opinionated. However, this is not the same thing as having strong opinions. To be opinionated is to be assertive in a conceited manner, but unfortunately, many people blur the distinction between the two. We need to be careful how we present ourselves to others but also need to be careful when assuming others have conceit. They may just have firm opinions. We need to lean towards giving people the benefit of the doubt.
Final thoughts for vegans: Stay humble despite being right
The plant-based message is growing. Organizations like the American College of Lifestyle Medicine, and the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine are making strong strides in the medical community, and of course a rapidly growing number of athletes, celebrities, and especially millennials are joining the movement (4-5). The Economist has declared 2019 the “Year of the Vegan” and Forbes magazine predicts that veganism will go mainstream in 2019 (6, 7). The plant-based movement is succeeding. So though the social pressures are unpleasant at times, the movement is winning on multiple fronts, and we should be happy for it.
We need to stay firm with living and sharing the plant-based lifestyle since there are very compelling health and environmental reasons for doing so (8 – 29). It is also definitely the more compassionate way to live. It should be shared with passion and zeal but it is also good to keep in mind how we may be perceived. Negative perceptions should not make us shy and diminish our zeal, but it does call for humility too. We should be humble because sometimes the character of the messenger is as important as the character of the message.
Vegaphobia? Don’t focus on it.
Vegaphobia and vegan stigma seem to be real. Some of it could be justified, but plant-based folks should not fixate on these things nor take on the victimhood identity or focus on labelling our opponents, as this is not too helpful. Vegaphobia will likely diminish as the plant-based movement continues its successful growth. This calls for joy but also humility as well because there are few things more annoying than a boastful winner.
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